Sunday, August 30, 2015

You let me in your house: April 2015 albums

A short one this month, which I'm not too happy about; the next post, ready a little over two weeks from now by current estimate, will include a lot of the major-hitter stuff you were hoping would be long since taken on by now. I'm having an unusually hard time determining what I think lately -- luckily, as of the last month or so I've heard some new things I genuinely love, and when I'm ready to articulate my thoughts you'll be hearing from me. In the meantime, all three new records here actually got downgraded during the process of putting this together, and many other things were clumped off for next time. (The big gaping hole in my confused brain is Kendrick Lamar; I still feel I'm missing something on that record, and maybe by the middle of the month I'll have it figured out.) As ever, trust that hours upon hours of work went into this disappointingly brief post; I wish there were more to show for it, but we'll start to see payoff shortly.


THEESatisfaction: EarthEE (Sub Pop)
This Seattle R&B duo has hearts in the right place -- unmistakably progressive and intelligent, but ever since the earliest promo materials were issued for their first album they've struck me as pleasantly bland in the worst way. EarthEE is a marginal improvement because it has more shape than their older stuff and is less reliant on the cliches of "alternative" hip hop consciousness. It's strongly produced -- listen to the Nile Rodgersisms of "No GMO" -- and they have a solid identity, but the songs still aren't quite there and it just drones with little consequence. "Planet for Sale" is the most engaging sound they come up with, a Stevie Wonder-like bed of sound with good vocal blend floating above, but the preachiness, however righteous, is pervasive. When I listen to this I feel like I'm being covertly educated, as in a SchoolHouse Rock video, and lord knows I have plenty of gaps, but I prefer my learning to come with a tad more subtlety.

Levon Vincent (Novel Sound)
Overpraised electronica (more like pure ambient, save various annoying and long-winded moments) from Berlin by way of NYC is OK but lifeless, despite the artist's own lofty claims for it: "If you are a member of the rat race, climbing around a dumpster with the other rats vying for power, you may of course listen, but know - this is not music for you. This is action against you." White people are so fucking hilarious. Revolution generally varies the tempo a bit more, btw.

Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire: Oh! The Grandeur (Rykodisc 1999) [r]
Andrew Bird is an immense talent who, like the Asylum Street Spankers, was enterprising enough to ride on the coattails of a late-'90s vintage music revival: big band and electricity-free bluegrass were moneymaking, mainstream product again for a blip. Like ASS, his craft and range soon eclipsed the limitations of the movement that made him bankable; unlike them, he was a greater success in the aftermath. Oh! The Grandeur is his first really charming performance on record, but as with Thrills it is steeped in now-dated concepts of gimmicky authenticity. It's mostly a hodgepodge of pre-WWII swing and vocal records, but it's undeniably impressive that its songs, all of them originals, sound for all the world like covers. "Candy Shop" is his first fully realized song; the rest is pleasant, mostly costuming. He isn't nearly the confident writer he'd later become, concentrating heavily on aping established styles and finding little transcendence beyond those borders, but he is already an extraordinary singer -- see "Wait". It's fascinating to compare this record to the sublime looseness he displays on 2012's outstanding Hands of Glory, which operates in a similarly backward-looking (though more rural) mode. It's astounding what happens to some of us when we have nobody left we need to impress.

Marc Almond: The Velvet Trail (Cherry Red)
Marc Almond was half of Soft Cell a lifetime ago and they still tour; I was somehow unaware of this but he also has a voluminous number of solo albums from a career that's chugged along now for three decades. There's some solid glam that fuses past and present nicely, like "Bad to Me," though none of the songs feel complete, not even the disappointing duet with Beth Ditto, whose potential disco queen status already seems nixed. Like a lot of serviceable pop musicians his age, Almond can't resist forcing the scattered decent material on this overlong record to mesh with his penchant for schmaltzy, self-absorbed balladry. But the guy seems to know his audience.


I don't usually do this but coming up in the next two capsule posts: Kendrick (might be a long review), Madonna, Twin Shadow, Heems, Courtney Barnett, more.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Velvet Underground: Loaded (1970)

(Cotillon [orig] / Rhino [reissue])

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Given its convoluted origins, this has the initial impression of a major disappointment; lots of popular literature out there about the Velvet Underground characterizes their fourth record as an overly conventional comedown, useful mostly as an introduction. Actually, it's a supreme album, wonderful all the way through to anyone seduced by the lyricism and performative bliss of Lou Reed, which makes it even sadder that it broke up the band. The original release of Loaded on Cotillon butchers three of the songs, but it's not likely to bother you until you've heard the full-length versions. I'll beg you to pick up Rhino's deluxe version of the album instead of Warner's budget-line release, but any way you can get your hands on this marvellous album is really the right way.

Loaded doesn't really operate in the same way as any of its predecessors, but it doesn't matter since they all existed in their own realms anyway. Lou Reed moves toward a mainstream sound, and the songs are excellent, but it was to no avail as mainstream success was to pass the band by completely. His rock & roll purity is more intense than ever, his poetry more incisive. "Cool It Down" has him still searching for mysterious people, here with slick guitars and double-tracked vocals. "Head Held High" is tweaked to perfection, and Reed sings like we've never heard him before, in a throaty abandon that would seem irresistible to the FM crowd. "Lonesome Cowboy Bill" expertly tackles country in a fascinating tribute to William Burroughs. And the last song on the album, "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'" is a flawless widescreen expansion of his pity for the underdog, with ferocious guitar solos that don't pad out the (seven-minute) song. There is absolutely nothing in these songs to stop the band from becoming huge, and they are all a huge pleasure to listen to; it's extremely frustrating that fortune did not smile on these immensely talented people, no matter how hard they tried.

There are hints all through the album that Reed was growing disillusioned. On the teasing, insane wall of guitar "Train Round the Bend" he expresses supreme displacement. The unbelievably beautiful "New Age" sees him contemplating the fame that has narrowly evaded him and the inescapable demons of his past and everyone's. The listener may find solace in the oceanic "Hey Jude"-derived chrous that closes "New Age," but Reed is still audibly unsatisfied.

He reaches for -- and manages -- unbridled pop bliss on his opening trilogy. "Who Loves the Sun" could easily be classic Beach Boys. "Rock & Roll" is virtually Reed's autobiography, and possibly yours. Even if the end of the band would be a bitter one, this is a lasting testament to what they meant and how they would come to touch so many after their demise. "Rock & Roll" is an anthem for anyone who, like Jenny, felt lost until finding a new world on the lively radio dial and everything all of a sudden seemed to mean something.

"Sweet Jane" serves the same purpose. It is undeniably Reed's truest standard, and with its coda properly restored, his masterpiece. He wails with revelation about the people he sees and the happiness they find, and ends up making some sublime statements about life itself -- celebration from a man to whom joy so frequently seemed hard-won. Musically it's a work of his usual effortless beauty, but every note of the performance is infused with friction, and it is a song made for driving around with the top down. When it plays you feel alive and in the open air, even sitting alone in a room with headphones resting on your skull. There is nothing else like it.

My personal favorite song on Loaded, and it's filled with fabulous ones, is "I Found a Reason," a sequel of sorts to "I'm Set Free" which brings us a selfless love song from a man who admits to having just come from the brink. He tells a million stories at once, and the doo-wop textures render it proof that he is not ironic, that he believes wholeheartedly in rock & roll as communication and art and life. He is the same man who wrote "White Light/White Heat" and "Sister Ray." The only possible conclusion is that he is a genius of his craft.

And after this, he left. The band slowly fell apart thereafter, first losing Sterling Morrison then Moe Tucker. Finally they kept rolling along for a few extra years with no original members in tow, just Doug Yule and some forgotten friends. Lou Reed went on to become an elder statesman of rock & roll, and died younger than he should have... a sad ending. But no matter. The music the Velvets left behind them is of more value than nearly any other legacy of their time. They have the capability not of transporting you to another place but realizing the beauty and wonder of the place in which you already sit. If this is the closest they came to an archetypal classic rock album, it immediately jumped to the top of that particular heap, and there it remains.

[Originally written and posted in 2003. I was 19 or 20, so you'll have to excuse the fannish tone, but it's all meant sincerely.]

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Alex Chilton: Like Flies on Sherbert (1980)



It's been opined often by various blowhards that Alex Chilton somehow wasted his talent. This he supposedly did despite living two complete lives in the pop hemisphere -- as atypically sincere teen idol then best-kept-secret pop savant -- before spending his last three decades making artistic choices that were wholly his own and frequently made no sense to others. In other words, aside from never achieving the comfortable wealth he deserved, he essentially did everything right, tried it their way and his way, and died a happy man. That this somehow translates to an abortion of promise simply indicates that most of us have no deep understanding of an artist's relationship to their own work.

Like Flies on Sherbert, technically but not strictly Chilton's first solo album (earlier material he'd made on his own ended up seeing release much later, in the '90s), is a good example of how little Chilton cared for adhering to the strict regimens others would have him observe, and how completely justified his own instincts usually were even (especially) at their most unorthodox. A singular, strange creation that often resembles a private joke or compulsive psychodrama more than an album of rock music, it follows along fairly neatly from the progression of the most crucial music Chilton had made early in the '70s. His three albums with Big Star are an amputation in three acts, with each successive record shedding a member and more possibility of absorption into any commercial marketplace. Though Chilton himself was never satisfied with Third, perhaps because it came from a tumultuous time in his life and undoubtedly in part because it was released without his consent, it's a fair bet that if you are attuned to the subtle beauty in the grooves of that now far more famous album, Like Flies is likely very much up your alley. It's the next logical step in that complete extended breakdown. (It's a whole album of "Downs," "Dream Lover" or "Kanga Roo" though perhaps without so much of their ethereal sweep.)

That's breakdown solely in a musical sense, because if anything Chilton sounds exuberantly cheery or at least bemused on this release. Everything about the record is sloppy, including the spelling of the title, the typeface on the front, its release history (multiple pressings with different track listings), and of course unquestionably the music. Songs are tracked complete with false starts and frequently keep going despite breakdowns in performance, missed cues and notes; often they're a complete shambles within a matter of seconds. Like Third before it, such flagrant disregard of Power Pop listener-friendliness was met with stern glares and finger-wagging from the rock crit establishment. A waste of talent! The worst album ever recorded! Unlistenable! One can only be reminded of the similar treatment once afforded the Beach Boys' Smiley Smile, obviously one of the most deliriously beautiful albums in the rock canon. Chilton's album has a warmth not even found in the likes of Skip Spence's Oar, because it's a record that celebrates its own deficiencies -- it's a fuck-all, not a fuck-you, and its weirdness is blissful.

Let's dispense immediately with the idea that anyone could make music like this, that it's some DIY-aesthete misfire recorded by musicians who couldn't play. (Chilton's joined and produced here by Jim Dickinson, so let's not pretend to unprofessionalism.) In much the same way that only someone with a great and wide-ranging talent for drawing legitimately well can be a good cartoonist -- in the way that you must know how to do something well to do it truly off-the-cuff and badly, as opposed to incompetently -- Chilton pulls this recording off masterfully because he obviously has such considerable chops as a singer, writer and (especially evident here) guitarist. The record's accidents are deliberate; it's all a question of attitude, of performance style.

So what makes an exceptionally bizarre and challenging original like "Hook or Crook" or "My Rival" so compelling is that we don't only hear the Sister Lovers guy drunkenly losing his shit in real time, we hear the #1 Record architect of hook-perfect deep cuts, somewhere in there even the tender singer of "Soul Deep." Chilton's own songs here are relentless in their catchiness and could have been user-friendly classics with "proper" treatment, but he had no use for that notion of this material. He wanted to make it strange and sad and glorious, with wisps of devastating beauty amid what sounds like a session of noodling that falls only periodically and briefly into shape.

Chilton was probably conflicted about his life and career at this point, and you can hear this clearly in the unexpectedly magnificent "Hey! Little Child" -- a dirty-old-bluesman leering session at a Catholic schoolgirl that he somehow lends the most resigned, passionate vocal against a persistent non-riff that sounds both like a boorish regional garage-trash hit circa 1965 and like it burst out of the climax of "Marquee Moon." It's a mixture of Chilton's most and least ambitious ideas but it's all approached with the same brusque nonchalance. And this makes it powerful.

The primitive covers have the feel of private memory, dredged up simultaneously as jokes and as longing clasps at Chilton's most beloved music. The Carter Family's "No More the Moon Shines on Lorena" and Ernest Tubb's "Waltz Across Texas" get approached with unprofessional, irreverent sarcasm but also bottomless levels of enthusiasm and respect. Nowhere is this more evident than on the revision of K.C. and the Sunshine Band's "Boogie Shoes," already one of the greatest pop singles of the period and a record deeply admired by Chilton. But his own version is nearly as good for the opposite reason -- it almost fails to make any kind of melodic or rhythmic sense and is in the end a massive send-up doubling back on itself. In a sense it's more punk rock than any thrashy revision of some MOR hit; it destroys the song, but also uncovers the broken-down sublime underneath its disco sheen. (And Chilton can't help but duplicate the funky guitar solo with wryly surprising faithfulness.)

These deconstructions and original mutterings won't speak to everyone, but the more one falls in love with it the more hard it becomes to imagine not noticing its elegiac sweetness and comical impatience. Is it that he's too lazy to polish anything or that he's too interested in the next weird moment he's out to capture? Either way, one wonders what kind of rock & roll life we'd have without shambolic messes like this, and if that results in suspicion of anyone who'd doubt Chilton's sincerity or brilliance when confronted with this, perhaps that's well justified. If you hate Like Flies on Sherbert, you hate rock & roll and you are its enemy.

The album's startling clarity and elegance of vision peaks with its title cut, an upside-down doo wop that sounds unfinished, insane, completely falling apart, and to this listener as gloriously personal and beautiful and inexplicable as recorded music gets. It's a mass punk insult. It's an ugly, distorted mess. It hums and moans and makes an awful, cathartic racket. It is melodic and strange and terrifying. It is Alex Chilton. Sometimes I think it's the best song ever recorded.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

What to do for pleasure: March 2015 albums

Gaz Coombes: Matador (Caroline)
Coombes is formerly leader of the Oxford hellions Supergrass. I only faintly remember some of Supergrass' hits from the '90s -- their radio presence was lesser over here -- but what I do know implies fans won't be displeased with his second solo record. He seems keen to attract new fans with his clash of '90s melodicism and very un-'90s punkish sincerity. It's pleasant in that delicate Britpop manner and sounds designed to please a broad contingent but will still probably only connect strongly with his cult.

Gang of Four: Entertainment! (Warner Bros. 1979) [A+]
The towering crown jewel of tortuous, cathartic college rock and post-punk; the legendary, influential (largely in bad ways), surly Leeds quartet fused political cynicism and rhythmic, funked-out thudding with a cunning wit and abstraction less obvious and immediate than their predecessors. Wire came close but lacked the provocative interpolations of black music; Mission of Burma had the thematics and the headbanging but couldn't be nearly so engagingly cold and harsh. Entertainment! is questionably the Gang's best -- hard, dark, twisted, metallic (indeed, redefining what metal means in a musical context), yet it's body music -- confrontational yet exuberant. And like all the best British albums of the late '70s, it's halfway to a greatest-hits: the hypnotic "Anthrax," joyfully vile "Natural's Not in It," the insistently teasing "At Home He's a Tourist." This echoes forever afterward in alternative rock, and its hard-won sneer remains timeless, even faintly scary in its absence of compromise. This kind of clipped, tight, elegant ruthlessness blesses us only rarely.

Natalie Prass (Columbia) [r]
Wispy major-label singer-songwriter from Virginia's debut has picked up considerable buzz since its release this winter. Strongly informed by the Joni Mitchell - Van Morrison school of aural theater, it features wondrous orchestrations but doesn't ever quite match the emotional power of its sadly brassy opening cut "My Baby Don't Understand Me" or the Dusty in Memphis desperation of "Your Fool". And Prass' vocals unfortunately lack personality, though that will probably change with time. At worst, the harshest thing you can say about her is she's a bit precious ("Christi" and "Is It You") but the intimacy makes up for it, even if the delicacy and theatricality do seem like a bit much over the half-hour span.

Jessica Pratt: On Your Own Love Again (Drag City)
L.A. folkie likes Tim Buckley, CSNY, etc. The perfect Mother's or Father's Day gift probably, sorry we're late.

Buddy Holly: Down the Line: Rarities (Universal 1949-59) [hr]
As comprehensive an official release of Holly's vault material as we're ever likely to get; the first major mark in its favor is that it's well-mastered and conquers the incessant overdubbing and doctoring a lot of this music has suffered over the years. It also assumes the listener is already a Holly fan, which is to its credit and detriment since the last half -- incorporating the legendary, unadorned, unbelievably beautiful apartment tapes -- contains some of the best work he ever laid down buried in all the hardcore-friendly stuff. This is probably the easiest and best way to hear those demos, which include such future classics as "Crying, Waiting, Hoping," "Love's Made a Fool of You" and "Peggy Sue Got Married" that he'd never properly record as well as first-hand evidence of his taste for innovation via his radical, slowed-down, filthy reintrepretation of Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'." And on some days I prefer his "Smoky Joe's Cafe" to the Coasters'. The rest of the material is good but only bigtime enthusiasts are likely to quiver at things like a three-minute conversation between Holly and his wife Maria Elena captured on tape (I did), early recordings of Holly led by Bob Montgomery, and a few barely-distinctive alternate takes. On the other hand, shivers go down the spine at Holly covering Hank Snow at age 13 before his voice has even changed, and it's wonderful to hear stuff like "Think It Over" and "Fool's Paradise" without the schmaltzy accompaniment. Holly is just about the most restless and gifted white artist in rock & roll, and he was cut down in his prime; this combined with the concurrent Memorial Collection will set you up as a lifelong acolyte, though if you're like me you'll want more. It's out there -- ten discs' worth of material that make these two seem measly, but that's also dependent on your taste for repetitive alternates, false starts and mistakes. But any two hours in Holly's light is time well spent.

Björk: Vulnicura (Megaforce) [r]
As the Buckinghams put it, kind of a drag, and she's been listening to Kate Bush's 50 Words for Snow; it's the soundtrack of the gutted, but it does seem to have cleared out some of her unfocused-ness -- for sure it's her least cluttered album since Medulla. I don't care for the orchestrations and miss her less formal -brutality, but it doesn't mean I don't admire this.

The B-52's: Mesopotamia EP (Warner Bros. 1982) [r]
Quite the curio: at the height of his fame, David Byrne produces the B-52's for a hypothetical album that never happened, with middling results. As usual, when the Georgians fully engage with their own warm absurdity, they're at their best and the self-conscious artiness (they go for an Eno/Heads thing on "Deep Sleep"; it's swampy and unappealing) falters. Full of modern rock riffage and then-innovative beats, the record is sometimes an off-putting fusion of duelling sensibilities. The B-52's were meant to be flamboyantly funny and off-kilter, so the top moments are on "Cake," wherein Kate and Cindy have a Shangri-Las spoken word routine suggestively discussing what kind of dessert they want to make; or when Fred rants respectively about ancient history and how Byrne's trickery is making him "apprehensive" on the title cut and "Throw That Beat in the Garbage Can." (The latter seems like a nod to Ben E. King's "Don't Play That Song," more or less an answer to people who find stuff like "Rock Lobster" annoying.) Even at their most ordinary, you can't say their chops are inefficient (Kate Pierson's full-throated vocal on "Loveland" is breathtaking) but the outsider influence -- and pile-on of session players -- seems superfluous, which makes it ever stranger that they'd end up taking the same route later in the decade via Nile Rodgers and Don Was.

Bob Dylan: Shadows in the Night (Columbia) [c]
Dylan was always funny in kind of a stupid way (there's that "I Shall Be Free" clutter that completely derails Another Side, for one thing) but this inexplicable joke LP of Sinatra covers is too much of an exercise in tiresome irony to become ha-ha funny, it's more like sad-funny.

Alexi Murdoch: Towards the Sun (Zero Summer 2009) [r]
Murdoch has a specific niche and he sticks to it, but the results are a wonderful listen. Breezier and obviously less sophisticated than Nick Drake, he makes mood music... but it's the sort of thing that hits the perfect medium of emotional catharsis and relaxed longing, frankly just what's required of certain mornings. The romantic intimacy of "At Your Door" and the lovely, Appalachian-tinged spiritualism of "Some Day Soon" render semi-moot the songs that wander off into dirge territory later.

Father John Misty: I Love You, Honeybear (Sub Pop)
Honeybear, is it!? Musically this project from former drummer of icky folk-rock outfit Fleet Foxes is kinda like Joe Cocker I guess, vocally it's Ringo or Cale? Same pseudo-soul backdrop and weird ornamentations only there's like a Death of a Ladies Man-style romantic fatalism; Leonard Cohen and Loudon Wainwright III and other such benchmarks seemed more honestly pathetic in their desperations. Misty's got a little bit of swagger but the lyrics are fucking awful and the sleaze is annoying when it's ironic, soppy when it's sincere, overall indulgent and repugnant in that classic white boy singer-songwriter manner. So yeah, the '70s are back.